Terron has not filed a response with the court, but Acevedo has denied any involvement with illegal activities and has demanded the seized cash be returned to him.

"I deny that the Commonwealth has any right to confiscate ... the currency," according to a court filing on behalf of Acevedo by attorney John R. Fletcher, of the Tavss Fletcher law firm in Norfolk. "If there was conduct giving rise to a lawful forfeiture of this currency, such conduct occurred without my connivance or consent, express or implied, and I did not know or have reason to know of any such conduct."

Fletcher could not be reached Tuesday about the possibility of a settlement.

A seizure with no charges

The Blue Water Tobacco cigarette sting was designed to crack down on cigarette bootlegging — people buying cigarettes in low tax states and selling them in high tax states — and related crimes.

The company would get cigarettes at cut rates from manufacturers, advertise the caseloads online, and sell them from a warehouse off Aberdeen Road. More than $3 million flowed through Blue Water Tobacco's bank account over the course of the investigation, though no arrests were made and no charges were filed.

Police Chief Charles R. Jordan Jr. shut the operation down in January following allegations of misconduct regarding officer spending. Jordan has since resigned, three weeks after being put on paid leave as the internal investigation proceeded.

So can police seize cash from people without filing any criminal charges against them?

The short answer is yes.

Though forfeitures are typically tied to related criminal charges, police can confiscate cash and other property without a criminal charge so long as there's clear evidence that the assets came from criminal activity, said one of the state's foremost experts on forfeiture law, Spotsylvania County Deputy Commonwealth's Attorney Tom Shaia.

In most cases, Shaia said, a criminal charge and forfeiture case proceed simultaneously. But about 15 percent to 20 percent of the time, he said, a forfeiture — which takes place in civil court — takes place without a criminal charge.

"It's maybe not the norm, but I couldn't go so far as to say it's unusual," he said. Criminal cases and civil forfeitures, he said, "are two separate animals."

Shaia said forfeiture law has a basis in antiquity, when kings would seize the property of subjects who committed wrongdoing. In more recent times, he asserted, it's still important that the government has the right to take possession of property linked to criminal activity.

"You can't stop the war involving illegal activity unless you're able to stop people from profiting from it," he contended.

Seizures allowed

Seizures without related criminal charges are allowed in Virginia, most other states and the federal government, Shaia said.

Shaia also pointed out that there's a lower hurdle for prosecutors to prove a forfeiture case than a criminal one.

That is, someone's money or assets can be seized if there's a "preponderance of the evidence" that it was derived from criminal activity. That's a lighter standard than the "proof beyond a reasonable doubt" needed to convict someone of a crime.

The case involving Terron and Acevedo is believed to be the only forfeiture case pending in the Hampton cigarette sting operation.

Earlier this year, potential prosecutions against cigarette traffickers hit a snag because police officers needed as crucial trial witnesses were themselves the subject of pending internal investigations.

A former Hampton prosecutor, former Senior Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney David Holt, said police brought him about "half a dozen" cases this spring, shortly after Jordan shut the operation down.

Though the cases against the cigarette traffickers were "solid," Holt said he couldn't go forward because of the then-pending misconduct case involving the officers. The Hampton Police Division completed an internal affairs investigation into the operation but has not made the full results public.